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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Why Is Everyone Eulogizing The Big East Tournament? It's Not Going Anywhere.

Illustration for article titled Why Is Everyone Eulogizing The Big East Tournament? It's Not Going Anywhere.

Here we go again. This week's Big East tournament, we're being told, will be the last of its kind. The league is being torn asunder in this new, mutable world of college athletics in which money, suddenly, is a priority. It's a shame and a sin, the eulogies say, with the wistful, shattered air of a tribute to a demolished favorite old building, or an obituary for Captain Kangaroo. These would be a lot more affecting if they were even remotely true.


Let's remember that Dave Gavitt founded the Big East as a money-grab. The league began in 1979 with seven schools—Boston College, UConn, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Syracuse—located in or near Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Within a year, the Big East left its footprint in Philadelphia by raiding the Eastern Eight—the precursor to today's Atlantic 10—to add Villanova. And two years after that, it expanded again by plucking Pittsburgh from the Eastern Eight, too. The difference, of course, is that when the Big East was doing the plundering, its admirers were careful to tell us those schools were "personally recruited."

What the Big East was doing was deliberate; the idea was to make the conference an attractive partner for a potential marriage with a television network. See the pattern here? Television money. Big markets. Expansion via pillage. Gavitt's "vision," which is oddly now remembered as "crazily brilliant" by today's courtside mourners, is the exact blueprint for all the movement we're seeing today. The Big East eventually became a bloated way station for the upwardly mobile because Gavitt's concept was taken to its logical conclusion, which isn't a conclusion at all.

The Big East is not going away. It is reconstituting itself in an effort to make money, which is the only conference tradition that has ever mattered (that's what made Dave Gavitt such a refreshing figure in college sports, until his recent beatification—he knew his job was to turn a buck). If anything, the Big East is assuming the shape it had at its basketball-only founding, only better. Yes, Syracuse and Pitt (and Louisville and Notre Dame) are high-tailing it to the ACC. Yes, UConn and Cincinnati are stranded on cinder blocks in whatever it is the Old Big East decides to call itself. But that original Boston-New York-D.C. nexus is now New York-Philadelphia-D.C.-Chicago-Milwaukee, and there's already talk of adding Indianapolis and returning to Cincinnati. The tournament will still be played at MSG. And without all those Syracuse and UConn fans filling the seats, it will be much easier to score a ticket. In the Big East, the tradition of no tradition will live on.